Pericles and Augustus: Ancient Leadership

by P.Y. Forsyth

Leadership has become a "hot" issue lately, especially given the number of scandals surrounding several world leaders. Even outside the political arena, "leadership qualities" are generally sought in candidates for important positions. However, defining what leadership qualities are is actually quite complex, and, in an attempt to clarify the situation, many appointment committees routinely ask candidates to discuss their "strengths and weaknesses". Of course, candidates are generally quite quick to expound upon their strengths while playing down their weaknesses!

The issue of leadership is obviously not new, and in Greco-Roman antiquity there arose many important leaders with both strengths and weaknesses. Accordingly, in one first-year course at UW, we select two major leaders to study in depth, and one very interesting pairing is Pericles and Augustus – the former being the leader of democratic Athens in the 5th century BC, the latter being the first Emperor of Rome. Despite these differences in space and time, both men dominated their respective societies and both influenced the course of Western history. Comparing their leadership styles is a fascinating exercise.

Let's begin with Pericles. First of all, it is necessary to explain his position in 5th century Athens. Pericles did not "rule" Athens (an all too common misconception); rather, he served as one of ten generals charged with overseeing the military affairs of the city-state. What turned this single general into such a powerful force in Athens was not only his ability as a military leader but also his outstanding political savvy. Pericles knew very well that he had to make the people of Athens believe that what he urged them to do was unquestionably right. This required what we often call "charisma" today: Pericles was indeed a charismatic speaker, able to sway the people at meetings of the Athenian assembly (the Ekklesia) to his point of view. Rhetoric was one of his most important skills: the ability to speak convincingly in public would make or break a leader in democratic Athens, just as it would make or break a modern would-be leader. Modern examples abound, but a Canadian could point to Robert Stanfield, the former premier of Nova Scotia who once wanted to become Prime Minister; despite his many strong qualities, he was not a good public speaker, and, in the end, that dealt his candidacy a fatal blow. On the other hand, contemplate Pierre Trudeau: a highly gifted speaker, Trudeau carried most of the country along with him in his quest for a "just society".  The power of rhetoric, of course, is open to abuse, and perhaps the most evil person of the 20th  century was the "Fuhrer" whose charismatic rhetoric led to the extermination of millions of innocent people.

Pericles, like all great leaders, had a "vision": he wanted Athens to be the greatest city-state in the entire Greek world. Attaining this vision engaged his strategic skills, and he played a major role in creating an Athenian Empire out of the so-called Delian League–initially a voluntary union of Greek city-states formed after the Persian War of 480/479 BC. Member states quickly learned, however, that leaving the Delian League was not tolerated by Athens: states that rebelled found themselves forced into compliance by the Athenian armada. On the other hand, Pericles knew when "enough was enough", and he cautioned his fellow Athenians not to expand their empire too far, especially when hostilities with Sparta were about to break out (the infamous Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC). The wisdom of his advice was easily seen when, after his death, more reckless Athenian leaders began to engage in risky military pursuits far from home– an approach that would eventually lead to the defeat of Athens by Sparta.

But turning Athens into the "Queen City" of Greece involved much more than military imperialism. A vital part of Pericles' vision was the physical glorification of his city-state, and the famous Parthenon that sits upon the Athenian Acropolis owes its existence to his vision and energy. He convinced the people of Athens that rebuilding the structures on the Acropolis was good both for the state and for themselves: Athens would be the home of the finest temples in all of Greece, while the people would benefit by finding employment in this grand public works project.

Excellence was also fostered in the fine arts, and Phidias, a close friend of Pericles, was considered the greatest sculptor of this age. It was Phidias, in fact, who designed one of the most famous cult statues of the fifth century: the 14-meter gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos ("Athena the Virgin"). In addition, the "Periclean Age" of Athens saw some of the finest Greek literature ever produced, especially in the theatre, where dramas of universal importance were staged for the Athenian public. Indeed, the tragic plays of  Sophocles and Euripides still dominate the canon of Western dramatic literature to this day. In sum, Pericles' influence and vision gave Athens its "Golden Age"; without his leadership, the Athens that we today study would most likely have been quite different.

Let's now turn to Augustus, emperor of Rome. Born Gaius Octavius in 63 BC, Augustus was the grand-nephew of none other than Julius Caesar, and this relationship was the linchpin on which his rise to power relied. In his will, Caesar had named the young Octavius as his son and heir, and despite the youth's lack of experience, he quickly forced such older followers of Caesar as Marcus Antonius (better known as Marc Antony) to deal with him as an equal. By 42 BC, he was a member of the Second Triumvirate (with Antonius and Lepidus) and, as they say, he never looked back!  His defeat of Antonius and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC ensured he would become the first Emperor of Rome.

Unlike Pericles, however, Augustus was no military man; indeed, his most crucial battles were fought and won by Marcus Agrippa, his close friend since boyhood. It is no exaggeration to say that without Agrippa, there would have been no Augustus. What Augustus did have (in abundance) were political savvy, boundless confidence and courage. Like Pericles, he knew he needed the people to follow him, and he carefully crafted for himself the image of a defender of Rome, an upholder of traditional Roman values, and the bringer of peace to a people too long beset by civil wars. The charisma he possessed was equal to that of Pericles – both men were attractive, persuasive leaders in the eyes of their respective fellow citizens.

But there were some very important differences between the two men. Augustus was certainly more ruthless in his rise to power: for example, in 42 BC, along with Antonius and Lepidus, he embarked upon the "Proscriptions" – that is, posting a list of "enemies of the State", men whose lives could be taken and whose property would be confiscated to support the armies of Augustus and his colleagues. Augustus indeed could use and discard people as he saw fit; everything took second place to his ultimate goal: total autocratic power over the Roman Empire. Such blatant abuse of power was unlikely to be tolerated in Periclean Athens; in fact, once Pericles was abruptly removed from office when the Athenians blamed him for misfortune suffered at the start of the war with Sparta.

Augustus was obviously not a "democrat". In his eyes, the Roman Republic (which was as close as Rome ever got to "democracy") had failed miserably, plunging the Romans into a destructive series of civil wars. A "new order" was needed, and Augustus believed himself to be the man who could deliver. And he did: the political structure that he established by 23 BC was sound enough to keep the Empire strong for centuries, even when Rome was ruled by such misguided and evil men as Caligula or Nero. Pericles, on the other hand, wanted not only to maintain but also to strengthen the existing democratic system of Athens, refining rather than destroying it. For example, he introduced the concept of payment for public service to encourage the poor of Athens to participate more fully in the democracy.

Despite such differences, both men shared certain traits: they worked hard towards their goals; they cultivated the image of  being dedicated leaders, working only for the good of the people; they knew how to use literature, art and architecture for propagandistic purposes, and they read the tempo of their times correctly. I would also give special points to Augustus for "growth": while he began his career as ruthlessly and greedily as any Roman War Lord, he ended it as a beloved Emperor who had, as he had promised, brought peace, prosperity and stability to Rome. Conversely, Pericles, for all his advocacy of democracy, left his city-state in dire straits when he died – a great, and ironic, difference between two of the finest leaders of the ancient Greco-Roman world.